Another Night at Camp David

Illustration by Dan Goldman

Roberta McCain was smacking the bottom of a steak-sauce bottle with her 97-year-old hand when the call came.

“I turned mine off,” she said, narrowing her eyes while her son, John, extracted a cell phone from his pocket. Mrs. McCain’s daughter-in-law, Cindy, was home in Arizona, and tonight, here in her own apartment across from the Chinese embassy, she was supposed to have had John all to herself.

“The White House operator,” her son explained. “They want me up at Camp David right away. I’m supposed to get a helicopter from the pad in Anacostia.”

“Life with father,” said Mrs. McCain, with a singsong sigh, the summons being all too reminiscent of the 48 peripatetic years she’d spent married to Admiral John S. McCain, Jr. “Do you want me to wrap something up?”

Her son shook his head and kissed her good-bye; neither believed the situation required an apology.

Before he got to his driver at the curb downstairs, the senator called Bob Gates to ask what was cooking. The Defense secretary owed McCain his job—nobody had pounded harder to get Rumsfeld out—and a little heads-up wouldn’t be too much to ask in return. But Mrs. Gates, once she answered the phone, said that her husband was already in the mountains of Maryland. So McCain relaxed back into his seat, and by the time he got to the helipad, had listened to another six pages of yet another books-on-tape biography of Churchill.

Within two more minutes he was aloft, rising like a marionette under the twirling crisscrossed blades of the propeller.

It had to be Afghanistan; couldn’t be about anything else, thought McCain, not after Wednesday’s gruesome air-base bombing. So, it had taken another two dozen dead marines for His Coolness to admit he had to stop dithering and splitting the differences and send the whole goddamned 60,000 troops he should have sent six months ago.

Still, there was something odd about the urgency. Camp David on a Friday night? Well, whatever it took. Everybody would finally focus on something besides the health-care circus, and he himself could stop running off to vote on one more idiot amendment at the beck and call of Mitch McConnell, who looked like somebody’s big toe and whose guts he’d hated during all the years he and Feingold had been thwarted by him.

McCain looked down at the lights of the Beltway, that glittering chokehold on progress of any kind, and realized you’d have to go back 30 years to get to the only time he’d actually enjoyed the Senate—that period when he hadn’t even been a member; his four-year hitch as the Navy’s liaison to the upper body, a long R & R of junkets and girls that even guys like McGovern seemed tickled to see him enjoying after his long years as a guest of the North Vietnamese.

A twinge of nostalgia now made him open his phone to call Gary Hart, one of his best pals from those days. No answer out in Colorado, so he left a message: “Hear the rotors? I’m off to Camp David. I understand it’s been spiffed up a lot since both of our presidencies.”

It was easier to bring him in via helicopter, McCain reasoned, as he touched down inside the compound. With still only one road leading into the place, tinted limo windows weren’t always enough to foil reporters smart enough to wait near the gate and figure out the license plates.

The November air nipped at his scarred cheek while he made the walk to Aspen Lodge, where for the next ten minutes he cooled his heels in a lounge off the kitchen. A Navy steward offered him a burrito and a souvenir windbreaker. He took the snack and snappishly refused the latter item: “Thanks, I’ve got half a dozen of those. One of them goes back to Nixon.”

His flashes of temper didn’t usually signify much, but this one probably did. He knew its origin: the realization that a half-dozen guys in the next room were hammering a strategy together, while he was outside, pacing the carpet and munching a burrito.

Once escorted into the conference room, he nodded to Gates and Panetta and General Jones, the national-security man. He shook hands with the president and with Susan Rice, and found himself all at once a little perplexed and disappointed and relieved: perplexed over where General McChrystal might be; disappointed that Hillary was in South America and not here to raise the intestinal-fortitude quotient; relieved that Biden was still out on the West Coast cutting the ribbon on some stimulus project and giving one of his shovel-ready, bullshit-laden speeches.

“John,” said Obama, “the North Koreans have seized the U.S.S. John McCain. They’ve hit it with a missile, caused a massive fire, and produced what we’re sure are heavy casualties. It’s in danger of sinking and is at the moment ringed by several North Korean vessels.”

McCain said nothing and tried to hide his surprise. The ship named for his father and grandfather had spent the early summer “shadowing” a North Korean vessel thought to be delivering weaponry to the Burmese junta. And that, of course, had been it, under this crowd—no boarding of the Korean ship, no inspection. And then two months later Clinton had gone off to Pyongyang to sit down with Kim Jong-il, all to rescue a couple of girls working for Gore’s cable-news channel—just like Carter had dropped in on Kim’s old man in ’94.

“There has also been,” Barack Obama continued, “considerable movement of North Korean units toward the border with the South. News of what’s happened to the McCain will be all over the air within another half-hour or so.”

“Well, I’ve been screaming about North Korea for seventeen years, and we haven’t done a damned thing except send over food that’s gone straight into the bellies of their soldiers. I guess we’ll now at last find out the whereabouts of all the plutonium that’s been missing for all that time—when they drop the bomb on Pusan or someplace else. My guess is they’ll try to keep Seoul intact, so they can march the victory parade through it.”

His Coolness ignored all this, wouldn’t engage, as if they were back at Hofstra debating last fall and all he had to do whenever things took an inconvenient turn was look into the camera and change the subject. “The North Koreans,” Obama calmly continued, “will try to make an awful situation worse, exploiting the ship’s connection to you and your family, if it appears that you’re out of step with what we propose— ”

“Mr. President, I’ve played in this movie before,” said McCain, who knew that Obama remembered enough of last year’s opposition research to understand what his old foe was referring to: how, in June of ’68, McCain had refused an offer of early release by the North Vietnamese, after they found out his father had been made commander of U. S. operations in the Pacific.

Obama continued: “I don’t want the North Koreans to think that they can assault a symbol of your family’s proud service and then get people thinking there’s daylight between me and the opposition party’s greatest military expert and hero.”

Daylight? thought McCain. There’s a whole goddamned picture window between this guy and me. And service! Christ, the way the word rolled off his silver tongue. Last year nothing had stuck lower down McCain’s craw than the speech Obama gave to all those lefty kids graduating from Wesleyan. He must have exhorted them to six different kinds of national “service”—every variety except the military one.

So what did he want from him? Why had he yanked him up here? Presumably to request that he keep the morons of his own party in line, stop them from coming out against the administration’s response just because they saw a chance to drive Obama toward one more supposed “Waterloo.”

“When we get back to Washington, an hour or so from now,” the president explained, “I’d like you out in front of the cameras with me, so that North Korea will know there’s no disagreement between us.”

“That would more or less depend on what your policy is, sir.”

Obama nodded: “Our troops have been put on the highest alert— ”

McCain snorted. “That’s a condition, not a policy.”

Obama, with no hint of exasperation, continued: “A rapid movement of naval forces toward the McCain is taking place. The U.N. Security Council will be convened tomorrow morning, and Hillary is talking to the Chinese from where she is in Brazil, getting assurances that they will not oppose any reasonable retaliation on our— ”

“Do you know where the Pueblo is sitting today? Forty years after the North Koreans seized it?”McCain hoped to rattle him with something like one of those questions they’d been terrified of in the debates last year—having Schieffer or Brokaw ask who the head of Sri Lanka was.

Obama wouldn’t say yes, wouldn’t say no—wouldn’t even nod. McCain looked around and saw that Gates, maybe the only one in the room who knew the answer, didn’t like his tone.

“I’ll tell you,” said McCain. “It’s still docked in North Korea. And it’s still a commissioned ship in the United States Navy.”

“Senator,” said Gates, “as events unfold, actions can be ramped up.”

McCain stared at him. Ever since September, when the SecDef had reversed his own policy on Eastern European missile defense—flipped what he’d set up for W, just to please the whim of His Coolness—McCain had been feeling contempt for his pliability, a dawning sense that simply not being Rumsfeld wasn’t qualification enough for the job.

“I’d like you there with me,” said the president, without irritation, but making it plain that this was the last time he was going to ask.

McCain held his temper, and kept the sentence forming on his tongue—You know, I’ve been forced to sign statements before—from escaping his lips. Instead, he just softly said, “Fortune favors the brave.” In the confused silence that he knew would follow, he explained, with an offhandedness so fake and stagey it annoyed even himself, that this was the motto of the U.S.S. John McCain.

“Well,” he continued, rising to his feet, “I will need a lift back to Washington. But what I need right now is a little bit of air.” It was understood that he would take a few minutes to think about the president’s request.

He stepped through the sliding-glass doorway and onto the lodge’s porch, leaving them to await his decision—and to make their policy without him. He looked up at the stars, and felt the burrito repeating on him. The small burning sensation in his chest forced him to confront a sudden one-heartbeat-away thought about Palin, who didn’t know plutonium from buffalo wings. Well, he wasn’t going to take that guilt trip right at this moment. He banished her with a mental image from ’92, a picture of Cindy, wearing way-too-short a skirt but looking hot, as she cracked a Champagne bottle against the bow of the U.S.S. John McCain.

He looked back through the glass door, toward the meeting he could still imagine himself running. He’d be putting its participants through their paces, not nodding at them as if they were some bunch of wired-up Frank Luntz voters he had to please. And no one would have bothered to ask the once-again junior senator from Illinois to participate. Nice guy, nice try, but who the hell would care what he thought?

And then, at 9:25 p.m., as McCain returned his gaze to the constellations, his mother called.

“The signal’s awful,” she said. “I’ve tried four times to get through. Exactly where are you?”

“Trying to decide whether I’m on board or just at sea.”

“Well, you left a folder here. Two folders, in fact. Both of them marked Indian Affairs Committee.”

McCain sighed. “I’ll send a kid from the office around for them tomorrow.”

“Good,” said Mrs. McCain. “Because right now I’m going to bed.”

His mind went back not to ’92 but all the way to ’52, when his mother, not in a short skirt but in hat and gloves, had smashed a bottle over the original U.S.S. John McCain, the one named for his grandfather alone. During the two years in solitary, the voice he had always heard in his head was the one he was hearing now—hers—the cheerfully sarcastic, get-on-with-the-job tones she’d spoken in whenever she had to suck it up one more time and move them all from Panama to Pearl Harbor or beyond. It was the voice she’d used when dunking him in cold water, with all his clothes on, when he’d start to pull a 2-year-old’s tantrum.

“Good night, Mother.”

“Good night, John.”He turned around and took hold of the door handle, feeling a familiar sharp pain in the hand they’d once smashed. He slid open the glass door and walked back into the lodge. Obama looked up, and McCain was struck, as always, not by the color of his old adversary’s skin, but by its unnatural, infuriating smoothness.

He didn’t take his seat. “Mr. President,” he said, “you’ll have my full support in the hours and days ahead.” There were grateful nods all around, and as Obama returned his gaze to a piece of paper, McCain added, “While you guys finish up, I’ll call and get Bush on board.”

“Which one?” asked Susan Rice.

“Both of them,” said McCain. He knew he’d never get a Nobel Prize, but there ought to be at least some service ribbon for talking to that lummox in Crawford.

Mallon is the author of fourteen books. Yours Ever: People and Their Letters was published this month.

Another Night at Camp David